Today, June 11, the repeal of net neutrality rules goes into effect. Consumer advocacy groups, lawyers, technology companies, and citizen activists have long decried this move — which was decided in a vote by the Federal Communications Commission in December — as a fatal blow to an open and competitive internet.
Ever since they’ve been in place, net neutrality rules have prohibited internet service providers from slowing down websites or charging premiums for “fast lanes” for specific services or higher-quality streaming.
Now that the rules have been repealed, starting today it becomes possible for your internet company — Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and others — to charge you more to, say, get high-quality Netflix streaming or access Facebook.
The way consumers experience the internet likely won't change overnight, but gradually. "Cable and phone companies won’t start misbehaving right away, because they know they’re being watched," Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. "But over time, unless net neutrality is restored, the Internet as we know it will wither and die."
For example, an internet service provider like Comcast could, say, strike a deal with Netflix so that the streaming service loads faster than any other, stamping out the competition. Small businesses hoping to start a local news site and build traffic might not bother, if an internet service provider decides to give established news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post a "fast lane."
Net neutrality has long been a heated political issue, going back years.
The road to net neutrality — in place since 2015 — was a long one. The most important turning point in the repeal of the 2015 rules was when FCC chair Ajit Pai, who was nominated to his current role by President Trump, spearheaded the charge last year to undo the rules — a move favored by many Republicans in office who wanted to see the Obama-era regulations rolled back. Net neutrality should be rolled back, Pai asserted in his November 2017 proposal, to stop the federal government from "micromanaging the internet.”
Over the weekend, Pai wrote an op-ed for CNET, arguing that the effort would be "very positive for consumers" and "promote better, faster internet access and competition."
Among the public, however, undoing net neutrality has consistently proven to be unpopular, even across party lines. Advocates of net neutrality say it is essential for an open and competitive internet, and that rolling back the protections would take away the level playing field of the internet, favor the bigger players online, and ultimately harm consumers.
The battle to preserve net neutrality rules has been waged virtually since the FCC voted to unwind them. In January, a coalition of more than 20 state attorneys, plus the consumer groups Public Knowledge, Free Press, and New America’s Open Technology Institute, among others, filed a barrage of lawsuits against the FCC, then refiled the suits once the FCC’s order entered the Federal Register. In February, net neutrality advocates and technology companies planned a day of mass online protest, embedding messages of support for net neutrality into their websites and apps.
For a brief period last month, there was hope that the net neutrality rules would stay in place.
In May, the Senate voted 52–47 to save them; those in favor of preserving the rules included the entire Democratic Caucus and three Republicans. Senate lawmakers used the Congressional Review Act (or CRA for short), a law that allows Congress to reconsider decisions by administrative agencies within a window of their approval, to trigger the vote.
But the resolution also needed a majority of votes in the House of Representatives — where Republicans hold a 236–193 advantage. Since Thursday, Senate Democrats had been calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan to set up a vote in the House ahead of the scheduled June 11 repeal of net neutrality.
“The rules that this resolution would restore were enacted by the FCC in 2015 to prevent broadband providers from blocking, slowing down, prioritizing, or otherwise unfairly discriminating against internet traffic that flows across their networks,” Senate Democrats wrote in a letter to Speaker Ryan.
“Without these protections, broadband providers can decide what content gets through to consumers at what speeds and could use this power to discriminate against their competitors or other content. Under this new regime, the internet would no longer be a level playing field.”
The House never voted. Still, even if it had approved the resolution, President Donald Trump could have vetoed it.
With multiple ongoing lawsuits and consumer advocacy groups on alert, however, the fight to bring back net neutrality protections is far from over.
Davey Alba is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Davey Alba at email@example.com.
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